Climate Change Is Turning the California Dream Into a Nightmare

A report finds that the state that supplies the world with food, technology, and entertainment faces economic calamity as temperatures soar.

(Photo: NASA/Reuters)

Apr 3, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Kristine Wong is a regular contributor to TakePart and a multimedia journalist who reports on energy, the environment, sustainable business, and food.

California has overcome its gargantuan budget deficit, but the world’s eighth-largest economy faces a potentially steep climate change deficit, according to a new report that calculates the economic impact of global warming on the Golden State.

Up to $10 billion of coastal property could be at risk from flooding by 2050 because of rising sea levels. By century’s end, that number will increase to $19 billion, with a one in 100 chance of a $26 billion risk, concluded researchers at the Risky Business Project, an effort by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former U. S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, and billionaire hedge fund manager–turned–climate activist Tom Steyer.

Rising temperatures in California’s fertile San Joaquin Valley, meanwhile, will likely lead to $409 million in annual agricultural losses.

That’s not just tough luck for Californians, but for all of us. The state supplies 96 percent of the nation’s tomatoes, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 80 percent of the world’s almonds, and a host of other crops. Silicon Valley and Hollywood are epicenters of technology development—you like your iPhone 6, don’t you?—and entertainment. An economically crippled California doesn’t bode well for economies from Alaska to Florida.

“California is already taking aggressive action to address climate change,” states the report, which was released Thursday. “By fully understanding the climate risks the state faces if we stay on our current emissions path, California businesses and policymakers have the opportunity to become models of climate risk mitigation and resilience for the nation and the world.”

But the consequences are far from uniform, said Kate Gordon, the report’s editor and a senior adviser to the Risky Business Project. Southern California, for instance, will generally fare worse than the northern part of the state, owing to higher temperatures and a reduced water supply.

(That future seems to have arrived. On Wednesday, Gov. Jerry Brown issued the first-ever mandatory statewide water restrictions as the Sierra Nevada snowpack hit a record low of 6 percent of normal.)

“We took the climate science data and overlaid it with economic analyses to see what those impacts have looked like in the past in California, and then overlaid it with different sectors of California’s economy,” Gordon said. “It’s the most granular look at the economic impacts of climate change in the U.S. today.”

By 2100, Southern Californians will suffer temperatures exceeding 95 degrees Fahrenheit for more than 200 days of the year, researchers found. In the Sierra Nevada, meanwhile, the number of days with below-freezing temperatures will fall by 90 percent. The loss of snowpack will mean a permanent water crisis.

“On average, summers across California will be like summers in Texas and Louisiana today,” Gordon said.

As a result of the warmer climate, Californians will pay on average 22 percent more for electricity by 2100, she added. The increasing temperatures will drive up demand for electricity for air conditioning about 11 percent, putting greater stress on power plants and transmission lines.

Because of the heat, 7,700 more people will die of heat-related deaths each year, the report estimates. “The rural and inland parts of the state have the lowest incomes for California, and a disproportionate number of outdoor workers will be affected there too, and experience more exposure to pollution,” Gordon said. “There’s undoubtedly an equity issue there.”

“Heat-related mortality issues are there too [for animals],” added Gordon, who noted that food and agriculture will also take a hit. “High temperatures can really impact the production levels of a cow in terms of fertility and meat production, and that’s similar to chicken and eggs.”

Reduced yields of cotton could cost the Inland Empire region $38 million annually by century’s end, while corn production in the San Joaquin Valley could fall by 43 percent.

“Climate risks are currently not calculated into how utilities site power plants, nor is it used in transportation decisions for highways, building infrastructure, or real estate bonding and insurance decisions,” Gordon said. “We say if you are a business, go beyond corporate sustainability and see how today’s decision will affect tomorrow’s actions.”

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of heat-related deaths from climate change. It was 7,700 a year.